One of the most enjoyable experiences for visitors to the Rioja region and Bilbao is a tapas/pintxo crawl instead of a meal in a restaurant.
The concept of the tapa has evolved from a piece of cheese, bread or sausage on a plate served with a drink in a bar into a wide range of small dishes prepared by creative chefs.
Do what the locals do
The best way to enjoy this unique culinary experience is to imitate the locals: you get together with a few friends, everyone contributes some cash to a kitty, managed by one member of the group. You meet in front of a bar, one person gets everyone’s drink and food order, you stand at the bar or at a table outside and enjoy your food and whatever you decide to drink.
The person with the kitty pays the bill and you move on to the next spot.
A great feature of the tapas crawl is that you inevitably meet up with other groups of friends at bars, where you compare notes about the bars you have visited, the food and drink you have enjoyed and of course the latest news.
The origin of the tapa – a royal decree?
There are many explanations for the origin of the tapa. Perhaps the most famous one dates to the 13th century during the reign of King Alfonso X who for health reasons could not consume much wine. To make it more palatable the king began to eat small amounts of food as he drank. He decided that this was a salutary custom and decreed that in his kingdom, food should be served along with wine in taverns.
A more probable explanation is that taverns would put a piece of cheese, bread or cured sausage on a plate and cover a wine glass with it to keep insects out of the glass. This makes sense as the word ‘tapa’ means ‘lid’ or ‘cover’ in Spanish.
A pintxo (the Basque spelling) or pincho in Spanish is a skewer, which can be a toothpick, a wooden stick or a thin metal rod on which several different pieces of food, either cooked or raw are placed.
The most popular pintxo routes in Bilbao
This two-block long street parallel to the Gran Vía, Calle Ledesma (Bilbao’s main street) is home to many bars and restaurants, all of which feature long bars full of pintxos and other small dishes.
The area around Calle Diputación and the Gran Vía
The area in and around the Plaza Nueva and the Siete Calles (Seven Streets) in Bilbao’s Old Town
This area is on the north bank of the river Nervión that bisects the city. It is easily reached by crossing the Arriaga bridge at the eastern end of the Gran Vía. The most famous of these bar/restaurants is Víctor Montes https://www.victormontes.com/pintxos-en/ in the Plaza Nueva. If you are in the mood for more pintxos, just wander around the Siete Calles (Seven Streets) where you will find dozens of bars.
Due to the influx of tourists in Bilbao, more and more bars have English-speaking staff. If not, and you see a pintxo you like, just point!
The best tapas routes in Logroño
There are three popular areas for tapas/pintxos in the capital of La Rioja:
The area around calle Laurel
Calle Laurel is the most popular area in Logroño’s old town, with dozens of bars. Here, an unmissable stop is Bar Soriano, that every year serves more than 30,000 grilled hothouse mushrooms topped with a small peeled shrimp and smothered in a garlicky sauce whose recipe is a closely guarded secret.
Don’t be discouraged by the crowds outside the bar – there’s usually room at the back end of the bar!
La Tavina, winner of a 2016 Best Of Wine Tourism award from Bilbao-Rioja in the Restaurant category, features a busy tapas bar on the ground floor, with a wine shop and restaurant on the upper floors.
Calle San Juan
This street is located east of calle Laurel. Many locals prefer to eat and drink here because of the crowds in calle Laurel. For an interesting tapas experience, visit Tastavin. Here, chef Pedro Cárcamo amazes his customers with tasty, creative dishes to go with a wide range of wines from Rioja and other regions of Spain.
A new route: the area around calle María Teresa Gil de Gárate
A ten minute walk from calle Laurel, this area is quickly becoming an interesting alternative to the old town for great wines and tapas without large crowds. The L-shaped area is bordered by the Gran Vía, and calles República Argentina, Menéndez Pelayo, Somosierra, Huesca and María Teresa Gil de Gárate.
Places to try here
Barrio Bar means ‘the neighborhood bar’. It’s a combination bar/art gallery/advertising space for alternative activities in Logroño. Want to learn how to dance the swing, take a yoga class or practice transcendental meditation? You can find out at Barrio Bar.
Tapas and shared plates emphasize vegetarian and vegan offerings as well as typical Spanish tapas including potato omelet and gildas.
Barrio Bar specializes in vermouth, with local and Spanish brands that compete with the ubiquitous Martini brand. Vermouth is a craze in Spain so when you visit, try a ‘marianito’, a small glass of vermouth on the rocks with a slice of orange or a ‘vermú preparado’ – a Marianito with a splash of gin.
Favorite tapas at El Tirador include a fried quail egg and a piece of sausage served on a slice of bread, and a ‘VIP’, a hard-boiled quail egg smothered in slightly cooked diced onion.
La Carbonera has a small but carefully curated selection of tapas and small plates with a great selection of wines.
Discover the Elephants’ Path in Haro
Haro is another place to sample great tapas and pintxos. The area around calle Santo Tomás, the cathedral and the Plaza de la Paz is known as ‘la senda de los elefantes’ (the elephants’ path). This is a play on the word ‘trompa’ which is both an elephant’s trunk and ‘tipsy’.
Other towns with interesting tapas and pintxo bars are Laguardia and Labastida in Rioja Alavesa.
Must-try tapas and pintxos
The gilda is arguably Spain’s most famous pintxo. First made in the Bar Vallés in San Sebastián in the 1940s, it is a homage to Rita Hayworth, whose performance in the movie Gilda did not reflect the image of women at that time. This pintxo, made with a salted anchovy, a hot green pepper and an olive is like Hayworth in the movie: salado (salty), picante (spicy) and verde (‘green’ which can mean vulgar in Spanish).
First boiled and then lightly deep-fried chunks of potato with a spicy red and mayonnaise sauce.
A ‘tigre’ is made with the meat of chopped fresh mussels, paprika and tomato, coated with bechamel sauce, and served in the shell of the mussel.
Made with sliced potatoes that are fried in abundant oil until soft but not crisp. These are drained and mixed with an egg batter then cooked on both sides. Sometimes onions are added.
Don’t forget to try Rioja wines
Rioja is king in the bars and restaurants in the Rioja region and Bilbao. A visit to our tapas and pintxo bars is a great way to sample both your favorite brands and to discover new ones.
Text by Tom Perry, Inside Rioja
Featured photo: La Rioja Capital
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